I couldn’t get off the sofa; a weight was pinning me down. I called work, offered some lame excuse about having a cold and sat there trying to understand what was happening. My thoughts raced until my partner came downstairs and told me, ‘You’re done, Jo. It’s time to stop’. I phoned work again, said ‘I haven’t got a cold, I’ve had a meltdown’, and went back to bed. I’d had many recent conversations about creating change but hadn’t realised they were driven by need, not desire. I could no longer put others first. It was time to turn inwards and look after myself.
Things had been iffy for a while. My world felt smaller, my thoughts oppressive. Everything I did fell short of the mark. I wanted to be creative, but the message didn’t get through to my hands. I had reports to write but doubted their use. I literally counted the days until the school’s summer holiday. I didn’t read for pleasure or laugh with lightness. I ached all over; my skin was blotchy, dry, and spotty, breathing sometimes shallow, chest always tight. I craved sugar from morning till night, prowling around the staffroom looking for a fix. I was a miserable pain in the arse at home, endlessly flagging major issues like the laundry not being neatly folded or the washing up not stacked to my liking. I avoided dog walks because I didn’t want to talk to anyone – we played in the garden or indoors. I rarely cooked proper meals. Bedtime got earlier and earlier, but I still felt tired and snippy in the morning. Negative and snarky, my relationship suffered.
After nearly thirty years of working in mental health and SEN, I’d recently accepted a promotion. I thought I was experiencing the appropriate level of stress, that I should tough it out. Patience ebbed away until I said to a friend, ‘I’ve got nothing in the tank’.
I did a naff ‘Are you suffering from burnout?’ quiz because I couldn’t work it out for myself. It advised that I acted ‘urgently’, so I spoke with my GP. She suggested a break and asked how long I needed. I mumbled a week; she laughed kindly and suggested a month. I stood in the middle of the garden, chucked a ball for my dog, and cried. Everyone else seemed to know what would help me, but I remained uncertain. Nervous and strung out, I watched silent TV for three days and ate cake.
Only after a week, when I’d imagined returning to work, did the stinging stiffness in my joints begin to ease. I caught up with my thoughts and listened to a lot of advice. I was presented with various solutions, but not all would provide what I needed the most: capacity. After three weeks of agonising, I resigned. The relief was huge but with it came a weird sense of untethering; it would take time to adjust.
Working in any sector for a long time means we sometimes identify with it so strongly, we lose sight of ourselves and other opportunities. ‘What do you do?’ instead of ‘What makes you happy? or ‘What are you interested in?’ can take us further from real joy.
My relationship with myself was in a tangle; at 47, I felt ready for change, but nothing would happen if I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew what needed to go, but that wasn’t going to pay the bills. I learned about frictional cost, when your life revolves around things that claw you back, not propel you forward. A quote from Ayn Rand tipped everything over the edge:
‘Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamp of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you deserve can be won. It exists…it is real…it is possible…it’s yours.’
I made a list of things I love and checked it against my current life. Many featured, but not often enough; they’d been pushed to the outer edges of my everyday. Making the list was a gamechanger. Creativity and learning had fallen so far below my horizon, I’d almost forgotten about them completely.
I scouted around for a new direction. Almost immediately, there it was: the perfect part-time job in a beautiful setting. I felt giddy with excitement and decided to apply. It took me two weeks to fill out the application form.
Change felt brave, suggestive of danger; something to back away from or avoid. Confidence was low, so I had to reframe it: change was necessary. I was risking on purpose. Being of service is important, but I’d forgotten there are many ways to give – there’s nothing selfish about creating capacity. Leaving my longstanding career in mental health and SEND didn’t mean I would no longer be supportive or caring.
Spending more time with my dog allowed me to process my experience without feeling lonely. Walking with him meant I kept purpose throughout that month away from work, chipping away at the granite block of my vulnerability.
I love my new job. Balance has recalled my sense of self. I’m not staring into the middle distance or disengaging from relationships. I’m not forever telling my partner that I’m ‘peopled out’. I’m not charting a fixed, linear path that only allows a single calling. Instead, my love of history rubs along with being of service to those who need it. It’s taken a while to understand why I had to make the change. It’s adjusted my relationship with myself; I feel grounded, energised and content. I accepted help, looked closely at my life, and noticed where the gaps were – I didn’t look to plug them with unsatisfying distractions but focused into the depths and made space. Much of the experience was far from fun, but now I’m walking a far brighter path.
Guest article by Jo Mortimer @jomortimer2903